JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 29.9.07
ALEX AND GORDON: their twin administrations at Holyrood and Westminster are just four and three months old respectively, and already I’m beginning to wonder just how – aside from basic party affiliation – these two formidable fiftysomething Scotsmen could be much more alike. Both were born in the 1950’s, into that doughty strand of the Scottish small-town middle-class that believed implicitly in the value of education, and in an ethic of public service. Both were students during the great age of protest, in the late 60’s and early 70’s; I remember walking from Glasgow to the Faslane nuclear base with Salmond and his then girlfriend, some time in the early 1970’s. Both were soon recognised, within their respective parties, as brilliant young left-wing politicians with a devastating talent for debate; Brown famously co-edited the fiery 1975 Red Paper on the future of the Scottish economy, and Salmond was actually expelled from the SNP, in 1981, for wanting to take the party sharply to the left.
And now, in the well-cut suits of affluent middle age, these two gifted men find themselves installed as First Minister and Prime Minister. Both have put their left-wing past behind them, and have become powerful friends of business and the free market, while trying to retain a commitment to social justice. And both have calculated that the way to retain power, in a Britain where public opinion is increasingly influenced by a mean-minded and backward-looking popular press, is to throw as many apparent titbits and concessions as possible to that socially reactionary current of opinion, while quietly pursuing your own goals in key matters of economic policy.
Gordon Brown and his chief ministers have been at it all week in Bournemouth, talking routine Daily Mail drivel about cracking down on this and tightening up on that; plainly, Gordon’s recent Downing Street photo opportunity with Baroness Thatcher was only the beginning of his commitment to right-wing gesture politics. And here in Scotland Alex Salmond has allowed those around him to send out another little dog-whistle to the conservative religious lobby from which he has already accepted too much financial support; in the shape of a hint that he favours the devolution of the abortion issue to Scotland, along with the setting up of a commission to reconsider the current state of the law.
And this is perhaps where the stories of Alex and Gordon begin to diverge, in terms of the risk involved in their flirtations with the right; for Salmond’s, it seems to me, is by far the more dangerous and untried path. It should be emphasised, of course, that Alex Salmond himself has said little on the subject of abortion, beyond supporting a time-limit reduction to 20 weeks that should, under modern conditions, be uncontroversial. He has also made it clear that he does not want any “arm-wrestling” between Holyrood and Westminster on such a sensitive matter.
Yet it is difficult to see why anyone in the SNP has raised this issue at all, if not to tip a wink to various religious lobbies in Scotland that if the issue were devolved, then their views would receive a more sympathetic hearing. And in implying – however subtly – that Scotland would take a more restrictive view of abortion rights than England and Wales, these elements in Salmond’s party play straight into the hands of some of the most virulent anti-Scottish propagandists around, including that high-handed strand of expatriate Westminster opinion that still chooses to see Scotland as an illiberal religious backwater, where human rights are only protected because of our Union with the more developed and enlightened nation to the south. This is a view of Scottish-English relations that has been common in Whitehall since Shakespeare sat down to write his tragedy of Macbeth, in which only humanitarian intervention by the English king saves Scotland from itself. And in mirroring that view, those elements in the SNP which see devolution as an opportunity to turn back the clock on the changes in British society since the 1960’s simply reinforce the very image of Scotland that is most likely to alarm the majority of modern citizens; and also demonstrate how far they themselves have internalised that false view of Scotland as a place that belongs to the past, rather than the future.
If Alex Salmond wants to show real statesmanship on this issue, in other words – and some long-term political nous, as well – he should specifically renounce any plans to devolve the abortion issue for the time being, and instead propose a commission at UK level, dedicated to establishing a broad similiarity of approach across these islands. What he should not do, on the other hand, is to take the risks involved in throwing signals that his smart-suited, modern-looking Scottish Cabinet is only a front for a Bavarian-style nationalist movement with much more conservative social views.
For if he does, he will soon find himself confronting an army of angry modern Scotswomen with no intention of going back to darker patriarchal times, and no willingess to vote ever again for a party that flirts with the idea of removing their hard-won reproductive rights; and he will also find that he has presented Wendy Alexander’s embattled Scottish Labour Party with its biggest political opportunity since the the death of Donald Dewar. Of course, the religious right is free to campaign for more restrictive abortion laws in Scotland, and to put its case before the people. But to allow the National Party to become entangled with that cause, even at the level of the political nod and wink, would be a profound error of cultural and political judgment at this crucial moment in the evolution of Scottish nationalism. And it’s an error that Salmond can best avoid by making it clear that for the time being, he is happy to leave this particular issue to Westminster; and to a Prime Minister whose personal view on this matter, as on so many others, is probably very close to his own.
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